Tuesday 16 July 2019

Rúaidhrí O'Connor: 'All Blacks have not been as vulnerable in a decade'

They're still world's best but retirements have dented New Zealand's invincibility

The New Zealand squad celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup in 2015, but many familiar faces like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are gone
The New Zealand squad celebrates winning the Rugby World Cup in 2015, but many familiar faces like Richie McCaw and Dan Carter are gone

Rúaidhrí O'Connor

After he named his team to face the Lions in the series decider last year, Steve Hansen moved to alter the expectations of a nation that demands victory every time.

As a World Cup winner, the New Zealand coach came into the room in a position of strength; his legacy intact regardless of the result.

The previous weekend, his team had been beaten by the tourists on an unforgettable night in Wellington.

When your win percentage is as high as New Zealand's is, every defeat brings on a period of deep introspection, but knowing that another loss was within the realms of possibility; Hansen looked to cool the crisis talk and appeal to the populace's sense of perspective.

"It's not the first time we've lost," he said. "I've read a lot of stories this week and you would think the All Blacks had never lost a game and that the sky is falling in.

"Every week there's pressure. We're expected to win every Test match and when we win, we're expected to win well. You've got to embrace that, you've got to walk towards that, and life tells you that we're really only playing a rugby game.

A graph showing what New Zealand's 2015 Rugby World Cup winners did next
A graph showing what New Zealand's 2015 Rugby World Cup winners did next

"Real pressure is when you've got to spend half an hour giving someone CPR and trying to save their life, and when that doesn't work, telling their children of their father or mother that, 'Sorry, we haven't been able to save them'. What we're doing is playing a game of rugby."

It was quite something to hear the head of world sport's greatest winning machine not only contemplating defeat but conditioning a nation to be ready for the unthinkable.

In the end, the weekend's game finished in a draw - a result that satisfied no one. New Zealand felt robbed, the Lions had reason to feel they'd left it behind them and life went on with the Kiwis No 1 in the world.

Looking back on that series this week through the prism of Amazon's 'All or Nothing' documentary that offers brief glimpses behind the scenes of the All Black camp, it is striking how a couple of injuries forced Hansen to go deep into his squad for that series.

Three of the four players who scored tries across the four games were making their first Test starts on the day and, although Ngani Laumape and Jordie Barrett combined brilliantly for the opener in the third Test, the newcomers didn't have the same assurance as the men they replaced as the game went on.

Only eight of the 23-man match-day squad from the 2015 World Cup final are available this weekend. Three are injured, four have retired and eight now play abroad and are not considered for selection. Included in those who are no longer involved are double-World Cup winners and all-time greats of the game like Richie McCaw, Dan Carter, Ma'a Nonu, Jerome Kaino, Keven Mealamu and Conrad Smith.

Their leadership has passed on to the newly-minted senior men Kieran Read and Ben Smith, while Beauden Barrett has been promoted from his bench role to be a world-leading out-half alongside Aaron Smith.

Injuries have disrupted their rhythm, discipline issues on and off the field have affected them and, while they have managed to keep their top-line internationals at home the lure of big money from France and England, as well as the prospect of international recognition from Ireland, Scotland and Wales, has diminished the pool.

It is just as well for New Zealand that they have plenty of depth, but the talent-line is not limitless.

They lost just three times between winning the 2011 and 2015 World Cups, but already they have suffered defeat four times in this cycle.

It can reasonably be argued that their win percentage is being helped by the decline in standards of their Rugby Championship opponents.

Struggling

Rassie Erasmus has been having a positive influence, but since the dominating the 2015 semi-finals the rest of the southern hemisphere giants have been struggling.

Despite his undoubted talent, there are questions over Barrett's game-management and place-kicking; at times Read's captaincy has not been as assured as McCaw's while their defence has given up 20 or more points 15 times in the 40 games since the World Cup final.

Of course, they won 11 of those matches and will back their sensational attacking game and superb set-piece to create enough to beat anyone.

They remain the world's No 1 team and the favourites for next year's World Cup. Ireland will have to put in a pristine performance to beat them.

But last weekend, England exposed a vulnerability that Ireland, the Lions, Australia and South Africa have been able to find. At times, the All Blacks of McCaw looked invincible but this team, for all of its undoubted talents, can be got at. And they know it.

Irish Independent

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